How an attack on a small tribe in western India brought attention to a people whose rights had long been denied.
Purnima Devi Barman, 39, knew something was awry when she was doing research for her PhD on the greater adjutant, one of the world’s rarest storks, at Gauhati University in Guwahati, Assam. The conservation biologist noticed that the number of the birds, which she had grown up seeing flocking freely and fearlessly around her home in Pub Majir Gaon, a village on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the state of Assam, had greatly diminished.
“It disturbed me so much that I put my PhD on hold and made it my mission to keep the bird alive in its habitat,” she says.
“Many people work with ‘glamorous’ species like the rhino or the elephant, but I chose the stork. The bird had been an integral part of my life. I had wonderful memories of my grandmother narrating interesting tales and singing to me about them. She also taught me how to identify the different stork species. All those memories motivated me to protect the endangered bird.”
Adjutant storks are also known as hargilas, or “bone swallowers” in Assamese. They are a reviled species around Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari villages in Assam’s Kamrup district. People squirm when they talk about the gargantuan five-foot-tall, scruffy bird with spindly legs and dull grey feathers that scavenges on rotting flesh and sullies people’s homes with its odoriferous droppings. Considering the bird ominous, villagers often chop down trees on which the storks nest, or try to smoke them out.
“I was once horrified to see nine baby birds plop to the ground in front of me when a villager felled an entire tree with many nesting storks,” recalls Barman. “When I tried to stop him, he was furious with me and started arguing how the bird was nothing more than a nuisance.”
It is precisely this attitude that has led to a precipitous decline in hargila numbers, says Barman. The stork is now endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, with only 800 to 1,200 mature birds left in the world – most of them in Assam. A large group, however, is still concentrated in Kamrup district in the valley of the Brahmaputra River, about two hours from Assam’s capital region, Guwahati, where Barman lives. Her research shows that Kamrup serves as the location for more than 140 nests each year and is possibly the largest nesting colony on the planet.
Barman says that in the 19th century, the stork could be found across south and southeast Asia – in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam. The northern plains of Cambodia hosted tiny populations, too. During the 1800s, in West Bengal’s capital city of Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), the bird became a cultural symbol adorning heritage buildings as emblems.
However, the urbanisation of rural India, resulting in the construction of roads, buildings and mobile phone towers, has significantly shrunk the wetlands where the storks thrive. With their habitats threatened, the birds have been forced to migrate to human settlements where they are regarded as vermin.
Barman realised that to save the stork, she would first have to change people’s perceptions of it. “The villagers hated the bird because they were ignorant of its great ecological significance. So at community meetings, I began to explain that, like most scavengers, storks clean up the environment by consuming decaying animal carcasses and maintain the food chain in an ecosystem by regulating the number of smaller animals like rodents and other pests,” she says.
At first, people laughed at her, she says. They thought she was crazy to be interested in conserving such an ugly bird. But slowly, change started to creep in. In 2009, Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based non-profit organisation that works on nature conservation in northeast India, helped her launch a formal community-based programme in Kamrup district to protect the stork.
Barman started involving the community. Cooking competitions were organised with talks about how essential the hargila is for the local habitat. The bird was also made part of local celebrations where women would rustle up traditional Assamese rice cakes or pithas and laddoos, toffee-like desserts.
Now, baby showers are organised for newborn hargilas and theatre groups put on plays with stork themes. Hargila puppets, crafted by volunteers, are worn by the actors while they sing and dance to generate awareness about the birds. Hargila motifs are woven into traditional Assamese gamosa (towels) and mekhela chador dresses, which are often sold to tourists. Drawing competitions are held for children merging environmental awareness with tradition and culture.
“The idea was to inculcate a sense of ownership and community pride in the rare breed of stork,” explains Barman, whose work on behalf of the stork has been honoured with numerous awards including the London-based Whitley Award – also known as the “Green Oscars” – in 2017. Slowly, efforts to conserve the storks have borne fruit and stork nest numbers have surged from just 27 to more than 210 in the past 13 years.
Today, Barman – known locally as “hargila baideu,” or “stork sister” – helms the “Hargila Army” – a battalion of 400 women who are actively involved in the stork’s conservation. The women campaign and create awareness about the storks, help rehabilitate injured birds that fall from their nests and hand them over to the Assam State Zoo authorities. Their group meets regularly with forest officials and local policemen to help further bolster their conservation efforts. Tourists now flock to see the hargila and meet the army that protects it. Ever since 2010, after the Hargila Army took charge of the movement to save the storks, Barman says that not a single nesting tree has been cut down.
The army of women also keeps a strict vigil on the nests. Volunteers keep watch every day from bamboo platforms that are 24m (80 feet) tall and that have been constructed throughout the district. The world’s first-ever artificial breeding platform where chicks can hatch in safety was also built last year to address the problem of the birds’ shrinking habitat. All of this has been funded by Barman’s programme.
Even those people who were sceptical at the start have stepped forward to support the conservation movement. Mrigen Rajbongshi, 45, a resident of Singimari village, says he is very proud of his wife, Protima, who is part of the Hargila Army. “When my tent business collapsed during the [coronavirus] pandemic, it was Protima who took care of me and our two little girls by selling face masks, cloth bags, and towels through the [Hargila] Army’s network of NGOs. Earlier she was too shy to talk to a stranger, but now, thanks to the Army’s training, she has become empowered and independent.”
Despite the success of the Hargila Army, however, Barman says mammoth challenges remain. Most of the programme’s funding comes from the Whitley Fund for Nature in the United Kingdom, but there are few other sources and money is tight. “While budgetary allocations for high-profile species like the tiger, elephant and the rhino are more forthcoming,” she says, “few are interested in saving a shabby bird.”
However, by creating this new model for conservation – based on social change and empowerment rather than enforcement – Barman hopes this will change. She has launched education modules and conducts regular awareness programmes for target groups – such as nest tree owners, women, schoolchildren, youth groups, community leaders, local police and the forestry department – to encourage them all to protect the bird.
To engage the next generation in saving the storks, teachers at local schools have been roped in as many of the tree owners, who are mostly local residents with birds nesting in their gardens, send their children to the schools. Programmes on ecology and the environment are conducted, providing students with practical conservation skills and knowledge such as how to take care of local plants, birds and animals and why they are important to the local ecology.
A scholarship programme has been launched through local schools for children of tree owners who excel academically and display initiative in working for the conservation of the hargila. Students and other young residents of Kamrup monitor nests and report any that have fallen down to the Hargila Army, who get help from the local zoo and police officers to return the nests. Tree owners are provided with recognition certificates for protecting trees and birds at ceremonies during special public events known as “felicitation events”.
“We’re shortly inaugurating a Hargila Learning Centre which will also include a hargila museum,” says Barman. “We have deliberately housed it in a local government school – the Kushal Konwar school in Pachariya village – so that the village students can act as guides for visitors and feel proud of their unique biodiversity.”
Indeed, Kamrup today embodies an unusual conservation success story, turning an endangered species into a symbol of pride.